The Holocaust

The Holocaust was Nazi Germany’s deliberate, organized, state-sponsored persecution and genocide of European Jews. During the war, the Nazi regime and their collaborators systematically murdered over six million Jewish people.

A concentration camp during the Holocaust

Primary Image: Prisoners in barracks at the Buchenwald concentration camp. (National Archives and Records Administration, 208-AA-206K-31.)

The Holocaust was Nazi Germany’s deliberate, organized, state-sponsored persecution and genocide of approximately six million European Jews. The genocide of the Jews is also sometimes referred to as Shoah, a Hebrew word for “catastrophe.” The Nazis also persecuted other groups, perpetrating a genocide against the Roma (derogatorily called “gypsies”), in which more than 250,000 people were murdered, and killing over three million Soviet prisoners of war, nearly two million Poles, over 250,000 people with disabilities, over 1,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, hundreds of men accused of homosexuality, and other victims.

Antisemitism was a centuries-long phenomenon in Europe, but it reached its height in Germany during the Nazi era (1933–1945). On assuming power as absolute ruler of the German state, Adolf Hitler began a systematic campaign to strip Jews of their property and their jobs in academia, the judiciary, the military, and civil service. Synagogues were defiled and burned.  Jewish businesses were boycotted or shut down. The Nuremburg Laws, introduced in 1935, denied Jews their German citizenship, forbade Jews to marry non-Jews, and took away most of their political rights. Jews became scapegoats for everything that had happened to Germany over the previous decades: the loss of World War I, the punitive Treaty of Versailles, inflation, and economic depression. “No salvation is possible,” Hitler had told his followers in 1922, “until the bearer of disunion, the Jew, has been rendered powerless to harm.” As countries in central Europe fell under Nazi rule, the Jewish populations there were subject to the Nuremberg Laws as well as coercive efforts to get them to forfeit their remaining money and to emigrate.

Star of David that Jews were required to sew onto their clothing as per the Nuremberg Laws.

Star of David that Jews were required to sew onto their clothing as per the Nuremberg Laws. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Gift of Sidney Bennett. Accession Number: 2016.470.1

In November 1938, German Jews faced escalating violence, showing many Jews that they were not safe if they stayed in the country. During a Nazi-provoked riot known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass, or the November Pogrom) on November 9, 1938, more than 250 synagogues were destroyed, and 91 people were murdered. Countless Jewish businesses and homes were vandalized and destroyed, and 30,000 Jewish men were sent to Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, and other concentration camps, where they were coerced into promising to emigrate when they were released several weeks later. It was difficult, however, for Jews to leave Germany because few countries, including the United States, were willing to take them in, even though it was widely known that they were suffering under the Nazi regime.

When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing units of the German Security Police (SiPo) and Security Service (SD), followed behind front-line troops, killing Polish dissidents, resisters, elites, and Jews. Shortly after the German occupation of Poland, the first Jewish ghetto was established in Piotrków Trybunalski, a city in central Poland, south of Łódź. As the war continued and the mass emigration of Jews proved difficult, Nazi authorities created more and more ghettos in 1940–41 in areas near rail lines, where Jewish populations could be easily concentrated and moved. The ghettos were unsanitary, overcrowded, walled-off sections of cities, where Jewish residents were denied proper food, medical services, and heat. Starvation and disease killed hundreds of thousands of Jews in Warsaw and Łódź, two of the largest ghettos in Poland. There were over 1,000 ghettos established in Europe during World War II.

Drawing by Halina Olumucki of people waiting in line in the Warsaw Ghetto

Drawing by Halina Olumucki of people waiting in line in the Warsaw Ghetto. Olumucki hid many of her wartime drawings and recovered them after the war. She continued to draw what she had seen after the war. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection. Accession Number: 2001.122.1

Many Jews escaped the ghettos and went into hiding, often relying on the support of non-Jewish friends. To hide a Jew was to put one’s life, and the lives of one’s family, at risk. If caught, those hiding Jews were imprisoned or killed. Some people hid Jews out of kindness and loyalty; others did it for a steep fee. Like Anne Frank and her family, who spent much of the war hiding in Amsterdam, Jews in hiding were often discovered and sent to concentration camps.

In 1941, during the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Einsatzgruppen were once again put into action, following behind the front lines to round up and kill Jews, Roma, Communists, and Soviet officials. Over 1.5 million people, the vast majority of whom were Jews, were murdered in this “Holocaust by bullets” and buried in mass graves. This killing method, however, proved to be time-consuming, expensive, and took a psychological toll on the Einsatzgruppen members, who sometimes killed hundreds of people in one day, including children. These obstacles did not force the Nazis to stop killing but instead made them find more impersonal, efficient ways of murdering millions. They began to experiment with gas, which had proven effective for killing disabled people, and pesticide tablets, which were first tested on Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) at Auschwitz.

In January 1942, high-ranking Nazi Party officials met secretly in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to formulate plans for “the Final Solution to the Jewish question.” Ghettos, intended to be temporary transit stops on the road to emigration, had become long-term institutions as emigration plans came to a halt, in no small part because foreign countries limited their visas and turned away many immigrants. The Wannsee Conference sought to solve this “problem.” Their solution was to begin large-scale deportations from ghettos to death camps— killing centers in Poland with specially designed gassing facilities— and to concentration camps. Chelmno was the first death camp, opening in December 1941. Arrivals to Chelmno were loaded into vans, which were sealed and then filled with exhaust, eventually killing everyone inside. They were then buried in mass graves in the nearby forest. While Jews were the main target of the killing operations at Chelmno, thousands of Roma were killed there as well.

Aerial photograph of Auschwitz-Birkenau

Aerial photograph of Auschwitz-Birkenau on December 21, 1944. National Archives, NAID: 306029.

Chelmno was later deemed to be an inefficient operation and was closed in April 1943, favoring the industrial gas chambers at Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. In these gas chambers, disguised to look like showers, arriving Jews entered and were locked inside as an SS man dropped tablets of the cyanide-based pesticide Zyklon B into an air vent, killing those inside in a matter of minutes.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was the only death camp where Jewish arrivals were not immediately killed. Arrivals to Auschwitz-Birkenau underwent a “selection” process upon arrival, where their ability to work was assessed. The old, the very young, and the physically weak—those unable to work—were sent to the gas chambers. Those who were judged fit for physical labor were forced to work in the concentration camp at Auschwitz or were transferred to another camp, where they worked under grueling and violent conditions. They were beaten, mistreated, forced into overcrowded barracks and makeshift housing, provided with inadequate medical care and minuscule rations, and often forced to do heavy manual labor. When these prisoners inevitably grew weak, sick, and unable to work, they either died or were murdered.

Three Jewish partisans, Gabriel Prushchek, Jakub Puttermilch, and Janek Blelak, photographed in the Wyszków forest

Three Jewish partisans, Gabriel Prushchek, Jakub Puttermilch, and Janek Blelak, photographed in the Wyszków forest near Warsaw in February 1944. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Benjamin (Miedzyrzecki) Meed. Source Record ID: G214

Amid the horror, there were efforts to resist Nazi persecution. A number of armed uprisings in the ghettos and camps surprised the Nazis, but all were put down with brutality and excessive force. Some Jews escaped, spread news of the concentration camps, worked with underground resistance fighters, and joined partisan movements fighting against the Nazis from forest enclaves. Others documented their experiences, burying notes, creating artworks, and smuggling letters. Though not every effort saved lives, they were symbolic victories.

Dachau concentration camp survivors

Dachau concentration camp survivors outside the barracks in the newly liberated camp, 1945. Collections of The National WWII Museum.

When the Allies began to close in on Germany in late 1944 and early 1945, the Nazis forced the surviving prisoners on long marches to camps believed to be out of the way of the advancing enemy armies. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners died of exposure, violence, and starvation on these death marches. As the Allied armies moved into Germany and Poland, they liberated the concentration camps and death camps, and witnesses to these scenes—war reporters and military personnel—were horrified by what they found. The world already knew the Germans were gassing or working to death Jews and other ethnic victims in these camps. Escaped prisoners had reported conditions to the media and to government officials in the United Kingdom and the United States, but it wasn’t until liberation that the full horror of Nazi crimes was exposed to the world. Even after liberation, it took years for survivors to physically recover, find out what happened to their loved ones, leave displaced persons (DP) camps, and build new lives.

US soldiers caring for ill concentration camps prisoners

US soldiers caring for ill concentration camps prisoners in newly liberated Dachau's typhus ward, 1945. Collections of The National WWII Museum.